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Academia and teaching Free Speech

Flemming Rose and the UCT TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture

The University of Cape Town Executive have decided to countermand the invitation extended to Flemming Rose by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) to deliver the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture.

While the AFC (a committee that I currently chair) has released a statement on this decision, I would like to offer some additional comment. Any views expressed here should not be assumed to be shared by anyone else, in particular other members of the AFC.

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Academia and teaching Free Speech

TB Davie Memorial Academic Freedom Lecture 2015 – Kenan Malik

km11The University of Cape Town today welcomed Kenan Malik, who delivered the TB Davie Memorial Academic Freedom Lecture for 2015. As chair of the Academic Freedom Committee, I had the pleasure of welcoming him, and the text of my remarks is pasted below. I’ll link to the podcast of the lecture itself once it becomes available (here’s the transcript in the meanwhile).

Free speech in an age of identity politics – opening remarks

Three recent examples of disagreement regarding identity and its implications are: what is meant by transformation at UCT; what is meant by “black” or “white” in the Rachel Dolezal case; and how should we understand gender and sex, as in discussions sparked by Caitlin Jenner.

Two positions are commonly found when we disagree on issues such as these. First, you’d find a group of people who have borne the brunt of misunderstanding, mockery, prejudice and so forth. Second, you’ll find some who assert that the first group is poorly or incoherently defined, in that they are allied on grounds of purported identity alone, rather than shared arguments or ideas.

Regarding the first group, there’s no question that collectives of people – defined however they would like to define themselves – can mobilize around a shared conception of identity, finding courage, inspiration, ideas, or political heft through association.

And the second group can impede all those goals, often callously. It is surely beyond dispute that glib dismissals of these identities and their concerns can be used to silence, or to entrench existing power structures and so forth.

Consider the idea of “political correctness”, where those who deride the concept are sometimes largely interested either in being abusive, or simply in preserving their ideological positions. You don’t find a discriminated-against group complaining about “political correctness” as much as that complaint occurs amongst heterosexual white males, for example.

Over the weekend, you might have read about a programmer from New Zealand named Byron Clark, who devised a way to illustrate what some folk really mean when they talk about political correctness. He created a web browser script that automatically changed all mentions of the term “political correctness” to instead read “treating people with respect” – with the result that headlines might read “Donald Trump says that treating people with respect is getting out of control”, or somesuch.

But on the other side of the equation, politics premised on identity can also involve a suggestion or demand that those who don’t share the identity remain silent. This last week, in the debate on Amnesty International calling for the decriminalisation of sex work, certain interventions were ruled out of order not because they were necessarily uninformed, but because they came from rich white women, rather than from sex workers.

Of course, the interventions might also have been uninformed – but this feature could itself then serve as sufficient reason to reject them, rather than using the identity of the speaker to do so. In other words, some expressions of identity politics seem to entail that the identity of the speaker either confers – or diminishes – credibility as an independent feature, regardless of what they might be saying.

And yet, the liberal impulse of treating ideas according to their merits can be criticised for assuming the possibility of cultural and value-neutrality – and that possibility might well be a fiction, where it’s simply the case that one set of norms has become the default.

A related question is whether it is politically useful, rather than permissible – in terms of advancing whatever cause is at issue – for people outside of a particular identity to offer comment. If our answer is “no”, then we run the risk of silencing ideas that might be useful. If our answer is “yes”, the consequences would involve hearing at least some uninformed and prejudicial comment, but hopefully also some that adds value.

As a recent article in the New Yorker put it, Mill’s so-called marketplace of ideas is, “just like any other market, imperfect, and could … be improved by careful government intervention”, as in the case of hate speech. One concern raised by identity politics is that the marketplace is sufficiently distorted that not only do the historically advantaged get to define the terms of debate, but also what is worth debating, and that we might therefore want to recognise some self-imposed, socially constructed constraints on speech.

The question in short is: is the classic liberal position regarding free speech simply a way to legitimise existing power dynamics, or is it our best strategy for separating sense from nonsense, and learning which ideas are worth taking seriously?

These and related ideas are among the themes that Kenan Malik has been reflecting on in many of his columns, books, lectures and documentaries for over two decades now. He is the author of 6 books, including “From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy”, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Orwell Prize, and “Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate”, which was on the 2009 Royal Society Science Book Prize longlist. His latest book is The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, published last year.

His website, Pandaemonium, is not only a valuable archive of hundreds of thoughtful columns, but also a model of robust and fair debate, where Malik takes time to engage thoughfully with many of his readers – some of whom, as is typical with online comments, seem to have read an entirely different column to the one the author likely thought that they had written!

On Pandaemonium, he tells us that politically, he takes his cue from James Baldwin’s insistence that ‘Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take’, before going on to note how the Rushdie affair exposed the left’s partial abandonment of Enlightenment rationalism and secular universalism in favour of identity politics, and how as a result, much of his work is now in defence of free speech, secularism and scientific rationalism. Given his abiding interest in these issues, today’s lecture on Free Speech in the age of Identity Politics will no doubt provide plenty of food for thought and debate. Please join me in welcoming Kenan Malik to the University of Cape Town.

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Academia and teaching Free Speech Politics

Identity politics, authority and freedom of speech

Originally published in Daily Maverick.

The University of Cape Town’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) hosts an annual lecture that explores issues related to academic freedom – the TB Davie Memorial Academic Freedom Lecture. TB Davie led the university as Vice-Chancellor from 1948 until his death in 1955, and is remembered as a fearless defender of academic freedom, including the autonomy of the university.

TB Davie defined academic freedom as the university’s right to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it should be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit. This definition is not without its detractors, with some arguing that the concept of “academic merit” is itself prone to embedding and perpetuating certain biases, in particular biases related to class and race.

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Academia and teaching Free Speech Politics

The TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture 2014 – Max du Preez

mdpEarlier today, I had the privilege of introducing Max du Preez to the audience gathered for the 2014 TB Davie Lecture at UCT. The lecture was recorded, and once the video and podcast are available, I’ll be sure to let you know. In the meanwhile, here are my introductory remarks.


 

Over the course of a 40-year career in journalism, Max du Preez has earned multiple local and international awards for fearless and principled reporting, including the Nat Nakasa Award for Courageous Journalism, as well as having been named the Yale Globalist International Journalist.

He is the author of numerous books that draw on his long history in South African culture and politics, most recently “A rumour of spring”, in which he reflects on whether South Africa can expect “a long winter or an early spring” in relation to the evolution of our democracy.

In 1992, UCT awarded Max du Preez an honorary Master of Social Science degree, and the citation is worth re-visiting. It speaks of:

his fearless exposition of power corruption in high places, in the face of all kinds of attempts at silencing him, from criminal and civil proceedings in the Courts to extrajudicial strong-arm methods.

Max Du Preez has consistently made it clear that he is not serving any sectional interest, but that of all the people of this country, and his cause is to promote the values that should operate in the new South Africa.

After graduating from Stellenbosch University, he joined Die Burger as a cub reporter, and the Editor sent him to cover the Parliamentary sessions. This proved to be an error of judgement. Max Du Preez’ overall impression of the Parliament was one of moral corruption and intellectual poverty, and he conveyed this in his reports; Die Burger’s impression of Max Du Preez was that they had a problem reporter on their hands.

He was hastily transferred to Die Beeld in Johannesburg. There he reported on the Mozambiquan independence, and the Soweto riots of June 16 1976, but caused so many problems for the Government-supporting Nationale Pers that he was banished to the Siberia of South Africa, the Namibian desk.

In Windhoek, he was quickly branded a Swapo ally, and Du Preez and Nationale Pers soon parted company. In 1980 he joined the Financial Mail in the post of political editor, the only Afrikaner on the staff, and in his own words, “their token boer.”

Later he transferred within the same media group as political correspondent to the Sunday Times and Business Day.

In 1987 Dr Van Zyl Slabbert invited Du Preez to join the delegation of Afrikaner personalities who attended that highly controversial and historic meeting with the then banned African National Congress in Dakar, Senegal.

It was there that the idea of starting an independent Afrikaans language weekly newspaper was born.

That newspaper, launched in 1988, was die Vrye Weekblad- the Independent Weekly. The newspaper was almost immediately in court, thanks to the first few editions having to appear on the street illegally after the Minister of Justice responded to the threat it posed by raising the cost of registering a newspaper from R10 to R30 000.

At this newspaper, it was du Preez and his colleague Jacques Pauw who led the exposure of apartheid-era murder squads at Vlakplaas when other publications wanted no part of the story – or simply denied its truthfulness. Without their hard work and courage, many of these details might well have remained a secret to this day.

The paper was forced to close in February 1994, thanks to the costs incurred in defending its charge that South African Police General Lothar Neethling had supplied poison to security police to kill activists.

Du Preez went on to be the founder and editor of the television programmes Special Report (documenting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and Special Assignment.  Du Preez ended up being dismissed from Special Assignment for “gross insubordination towards management”, after objecting to a management decision to bar the screening of a segment on witchcraft.

That same weekend, Special Assignment won six awards at a television prize-giving.

If a more recent sort of threat, by actor and economic freedom fighter Fana Mokoena to “seize his farm” is more typical these days, it’s not because du Preez has slowed down, or toned down, his challenges to political authority and the abuse of power. Nor could it be because he has a farm, as he has none – but accuracy is seldom a primary concern for bullies.

It might instead be exactly because – thanks in part to him and other courageous editors – newspapers in South Africa no longer need fear being bombed, as the Vrye Weekblad offices were in 1991.

To return to the 1992 citation,

Mr Chancellor, the sensational disclosures which struck at the malignant core of apartheid are only part of Max Du Preez’ achievements. He is clearly a non-conformist, an independent thinker, a maverick. Some would use stronger terms. The French noun might be a sansculotte-  ‘without breeches”. In Afrikaans, the expression is earthier – he is hardegat.

Ladies and Gentlemen: please welcome Max du Preez.

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Academia and teaching Free Speech

The 2012 TB Davie lecture: Introductory remarks

On August 1, 2012, Ferial Haffajee delivered the 47th annual TB Davie Lecture at the University of Cape Town. As chair of the Academic Freedom Committee, I had the privilege of introducing her, and this is the text of my introductory remarks.

TB Davie led the university as Vice-Chancellor from 1948 until his death in 1955. He is remembered as a fearless defender of the principles of academic freedom. He championed this cause and the autonomy of the university, defining academic freedom as the university’s right to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it should be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit.

This legacy is honoured through the TB Davie memorial lecture series, beginning in 1959 with a lecture by former chief justice and UCT chancellor, Albert van de Sandt Centlivres, after whom a building adjacent to this one is named. In subsequent years, the lecture has been delivered by, among others, ZK Matthews, Walter Sisulu, Wole Soyinka, Kader Asmal and Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert.

When the Academic Freedom Committee invited Ferial Haffajee to deliver the 47th annual TB Davie Lecture, it was in the knowledge that we were inviting one of South Africa’s media luminaries. Her career started with an internship at what was then the Weekly Mail in 1991 – a publication at which she gained immediate exposure to the challenges of working in a medium where a desire to reveal and discuss matters in the public interest would frequently be met by powerful dissenting voices, requesting (and sometimes requiring) that you refrain from speaking.

After leaving the Weekly Mail, Ferial worked in radio as a producer and reporter at the SABC, before joining the Financial Mail as Political Editor, and later Managing Editor. In 2004, she rejoined what had by then become the Mail & Guardian, where she served as editor for 5 years. In 2009, she was appointed editor in chief at the City Press.

Throughout these 20-odd years, Ferial has been no stranger to controversy and having to fend off attempts at censorship. In 2005, the High Court barred the Mail & Guardian from publishing a story on the Oilgate scandal, detailing how the Imvume oil company had paid millions of taxpayers rands to the ANC. Just as the publication had done in the 1980’s, Ferial insisted on running the story, but with the banned segments blacked out.

In 2006, she published one of what became known as the Danish cartoons, to illustrate a story about the protests generated by the infamous depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Threats to both herself and her family resulted from this choice.

The committee knew all of this when inviting her to address us today. What we did not, and could not, have been aware of is just how appropriate a choice of speaker Ms Haffajee would end up being. I refer of course to the events of May this year, when Brett Murray’s painting The Spear was hung and then defaced at the Goodman Gallery, and published then later retracted by the City Press.

The Spear highlighted various fractures and absurdities in South African society. One absurdity, for me at least, was in hearing a sitting Minister of Education call for the destruction of an artwork. Another was the inconsistency between the near-complete silence from social media pundits as well as government spokespersons when members of the political opposition are racially slurred or crudely insulted, and the contrast between this and the outrage generated by the alleged lack of respect shown by this painting, and the publication of it. A morality that appears to be selective is difficult to fathom, and sometimes difficult to respect.

For some, it was of course always absurd that an act of satire could be this divisive, this inflammatory. For others, the lack of sympathy or understanding for the outrage was the real absurdity – and a real travesty of decency. In South Africa, these fractures are sometimes quite shallow beneath the surface. A key question is of course how to deal with them. Another key question is how one gets – and perhaps stays – in a position to be able to address them, and at what cost.

Academic freedom and media freedom are natural bedfellows, perhaps most obviously because of the symbiosis between a media revealing things that might benefit from academic study, and through academic activity frequently being newsworthy. But more crucial, perhaps, is media freedom simply as a barometer of a country’s freedom more generally.

In a 2009 interview, Ferial said “Until just over a year ago, I was singing that we enjoyed world-class media freedom, especially compared to some other African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where four radio journalists were murdered last year, or Ethiopia, where all independent journalists are in jail or exile. But the ratcheting up of rhetoric against journalists since Polokwane is very, very dangerous. There is a fundamental philosophical difference between how the ANC perceives media freedom and how we journalists see it.”

Explaining her decision to withdraw The Spear from the City Press website earlier this year, she remarked “I hope we are not crafting a society … where we consign journalism to a free expression constrained by the limits of fear. This week society began the path of setting its mores on how we treat presidents in art and journalism; what is acceptable and what is not.”

Expression is at most partly free when one is afraid to speak. Arguably, it’s not at all free. Demands for silence on the grounds of culture, tradition or offences to dignity can sometimes be self-serving in that they forestall much possible debate or reflection on the merits of an artwork or speech act. Not the merits in terms of quality and originality, which are a separate matter, but the merits in terms of the discomfort and self-reflection the artwork could inspire.

The easiest way to justify poor arguments or mistaken ideas is simply to refuse to discuss them – and if it is a mistaken idea that presidents, for example, merit special protection from these sorts of insults, playing the race card or the culture card serves to rule that discussion out of order, leaving us unable to discuss those ideas.

It’s easy to agree that a painting like The Spear is disrespectful – I’d imagine that’s part of the point. You might think the painting in unacceptably bad taste, but your aesthetic preferences and cultural norms are of no more consequence than anyone else’s – at least in theory.

Many of you might share my hope that we can learn to deal with insults without feeling the need for protection from the courts, or from a Film and Publications Board which exhibits a very dubious moral authority in listing a known homophobic organisation as a “useful link” on its website.

I have this hope because it remains true that any restrictions on free speech on the basis of offence or slights to dignity threaten to put us on an unprincipled and very slippery slope. These sorts of things are perhaps easier for some of us to believe, and say, than it is for others. But it’s also true that some of us have easier access to the courts than others do.

Absolute freedom, including the freedom to offend, is usually not the only value at issue in contestations such as these. It is sometimes the case that one might be free to speak, but chose not to exercise that freedom – or simply, to regret having done so because the harms seem to far be outweighing any possible benefits, making absolute principles difficult to defend. As someone who experienced these dilemmas at first hand, we look forward to hearing Ferial Haffajee’s thoughts on creeping censorship, and the spearing of freedom.

You can download the audio of Ferial’s talk via this UCT page.

Previous posts on The Spear: